Yusef Salaam grows tearful as he is honored at ACLU awards in 2019

A tearful Yusef Salaam is honored at ACLU awards in 2019

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

From the Belly Of the Beast: Blessed Be the Karma

In his "ultimate exoneration," Yusef Salaam, one of the once-vilified Central Park Five black and brown teenage boys falsely charged with raping a woman jogger in 1989, has evidently won a key Harlem seat on the New York City Council by defeating two longtime incumbents. Cleared after 7 years in prison - "I was 15 (when) I was run over by the spiked wheels of justice" - Salaam cogently argues, "Those who've been close to the pain should have a seat at the table.”

With no previous political experience, Salaam, 49, won this week's Democratic primary in the 9th Council District in Harlem , garnering just over 50% of the vote and sweeping past two longtime state Assembly members who both outspent him - Inez Dickens, who won 25%, and Al Taylor, with 15%. In largely Democratic New York City, that means he'll presumably win the general election, marking what many view as a power shift in a neighborhood that has long backed Harlem's storied political old guard but now seems ready for "new blood." On a once-gritty, newly gentrified 125th Street where a shiny new Whole Foods has replaced shuttered bodegas and older residents lament, “We’re being squeezed out (like) toothpaste in a tube," Salaam campaigned as a long-shot but hopeful candidate "building a brighter future." Endorsed by the progressives likes of Cornel West, supported by many young voters and pointedly representing a break from the past, Salaam's candidacy sometimes prompted generational discord. At one point, 93-year-old "Lion of Congress" Charlie Rangel, who served for decades, noted that Salaam "had a foreign name." "I am a son of Harlem named Yusef Salaam," retorted Salaam. "I went to prison because my name is Yusef Salaam. People looked at me funny because my name is Yusef Salaam. I am proud to be named Yusef Salaam. I am born here, raised here and of here."

Most vitally, he stresses, “While I’m a neophyte in the political space, I’m not new to struggle.” When he was 15, Salaam - along with 3 other black boys and one Latino ages 14-16 - was accusedof brutally raping and beating a 29-year-old white woman jogging in Central Park in a case that sparked an ugly, racist media frenzy about young, "wilding," violent Black men. Each boy was interrogated without a lawyer; each, falsely told the others had turned on them, was coerced into a confession. In August of 1990, a young Salaam told the judge at his sentencing hearing he viewed "this legal lynching as a test by my God Allah.” After serving seven years, Salaam was released. For five years, he and the others were "free," but still deemed violent rapists by their convictions and "this indelible scar": "I was hiding in plain sight - I didn't really want anyone to know who I was." In 2002, after convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to the crime, the "Central Park Five," now in their late 20s, became known as "The Exonerated Five" when their convictions were vacated. Their story was chronicled in a 2012 documentary by Ken Burns and in a 2019 Netflix series “When They See Us” by Ava DuVernay. All five sued NYC for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress; in 2014, they received a $41 million settlement from the city. They never received an apology.

Nor did they ever get an apology from a loud-mouthed, racist, grifting real-estate mobster who took out full-page ads in the city's four big newspapers to scream, “Bring Back The Death Penalty!” Blithely ignoring all that innocent-until-proven-guilty nonsense and even before the teenagers had had their day in court, a vengeful Trump spent $85,000 to urge their execution, shrieking, "CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS." "I hate these people," he said in an interview at the time. "Let's all hate these people - maybe hate is what we need if we're gonna get something done." Many argue the vicious tone of his ads helped fan a public hysteria that would have seen the five "hanging from trees in Central Park," says Salaam calmly. “People wanted our blood running in the streets." Almost 34 years later, Trump was arraigned in New York on state felony charges for financial crimes, one of multiple probes against him. The same day, Salaam published his own full-page ad: Titled "Bring Back Justice & Fairness," it excoriated Trump's base calls for violence, from seeking "the death of me and four other innocent children" to threatening D.A. Alvin Bragg: "You were wrong then, and you are wrong now." In a press release on the news of Trump, who still refuses to apologize - "You have people on both sides of that" (what the ever-loving fuck) - Salaam offered a succinct and steely response: "Karma."

The tallest and most dapper of the Exonerated Five - he tends to bow ties and pin-stripped suits - Salaam is a charismatic presence who's been dubbed "powerful, graceful and wise" under the moniker Next Level Mettle. He completed a college degree in prison and, when he got out, became an advocate for the wrongfully convicted within what he calls this country's “criminal system of injustice." He's traveled widely as a public speaker - Yusef Speaks - on the subjects of race, class, police misconduct and the school-to-prison pipeline; he's also the father of 10 children in a blended family, the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from Barack Obama, and the co-author with Haitian-American Ibi Zoboi of a new young adult novel, “Punching the Air,” partly inspired by his past, about a black Muslim boy wrongfully incarcerated and "who gets to make mistakes." His earlier memoir, Better Not Bitter: The Power of Hope and Living With Purpose, echoes his common refrain that, "You can come out of prison better, not bitter." "My story is extreme, but not unique," he says. "Countless lives have been upended by systems that have failed us...My story, our story, continues to play out in communities all over this country." Having been "kidnapped (as) a 15-year-old child and lodged in the belly of the beast," he says, "I was gifted to turn that experience into purpose, to take my pain and do something about it."

Salaam's campaign focused on jobs, affordable housing, environmental justice and police abuses - an issue that's merely festered since his youth, and, in his long journey from Riker's Island, he's uncommonly equipped to confront. "34 years ago, they looked at the color of my skin and judged me by it," he said in an interview. "I was guilty, guilty, guilty." Summoning "the names of our lost brothers and sisters" in the name of the BLM movement - "Our skin is the charge against us" - he insists "people need hope." "When you walk around the Harlems of the world, you see hopelessness, you see sleeping giants...This campaign has been about those who have been counted out, who have been forgotten, who have been pushed into the margins of life." With over 99% of votes counted - but no official call - he declared victory at a jubilant party at Harlem Tavern on Frederick Douglass Blvd, where he thanked the community that gave him a second chance: "I am here because, Harlem, you believed in me." He also cited Trump's hateful ads from long ago, "a whisper for the state to kill us...a whisper (into) the darkest enclaves of society for them to do to us what they had done to Emmett Till." "This campaign has restored my faith (that) I was born for this, (that) every single thing that happens to you happens for you," he said tearfully. “I am my ancestors' wildest dream.”

Yusef Salaam being arrested by two New York City detectivese in 1989Yusef Salaam being (wrongly) arrested by New York police in 1989Photo by New York Daily News / Getty

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.